by Michael S. Collins, PhD

&

The Vietnam War poems of Yusef Komunyakaa were born in the shadow of lies under which the war was sheltered: lies that grew down from Washington, D.C. into the brains of soldiers. According to Daniel Ellsberg, who for a time helped shape military strategy but turned against the war and leaked a massive secret study of its unreported expansions, “the system that I had been working for … [was] a system that lies automatically at every level from bottom to top — from sergeant to commander in chief. … I had in my safe … seven thousand pages of documentary evidence of lying, by four presidents … over twenty-three years … ” (289). Those thousands of pages documented a whole zoology of lies, including especially the most intimate and potent of them all: self-deceptions, which year after year prevented Ellsberg and his superiors from seeing that the war was unwinnable and that the increasing numbers of people protesting against it were right.

In 1971 Ellsberg finally leaked the pages, now known as the Pentagon Papers, in an effort to add weight to the protests by widening what war critics called the “credibility gap”: the distance between what the U.S. government said about the war, what the protestors increasingly knew and, most important, what soldiers came to suffer in the form of cognitive dissonance, PTSD, and worse.[1]

The lies of war are at the center of Komunyakaa’s poem “Chair Gallows” (Pleasure Dome 47) about the singer-songwriter and anti-war activist Phil Ochs. Gil Troy of the Daily Beast reports that “Ochs — like many others — crashed from the heights of the 1960s into lows of cynicism and nihilism [reflected in his lyrics, such as] ‘I am the masculine American man, I kill therefore I am.’ ” In 1976, “buffeted by bipolar episodes … [Ochs] made a noose with a belt … stood on a chair … and kicked the chair away” (Troy). Lines in “Chair Gallows” record the moment when Komunyakaa reads the news:

                                                      I hope this is just another lie,
just another typo in a newspaper headline.

                                    But I know war criminals
live longer than men lost between railroad tracks

                                    & crossroad blues, with twelve strings
two days out of hock.

Komunyakaa gestures to the shelter, under which the war and the whole American political era that supported it existed, with his hope that “this is just another lie.” But he also acknowledges what the shelter enables: the survival in power of “war criminals / [who] live longer than [relentless truth seekers like Ochs].” Sheltering under their own lies, the war criminals presumably do not undertake the dangerous work of looking into the abyss of self-knowledge, whose dangers Komunyakaa represents with a mirror metaphor in the last two lines of “Chair Gallows”: “I’ve seen in women’s eyes / men who swallow themselves in mirrors.”

His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!”

The protagonist in Komunyakaa’s “Torsion” (The Emperor of Water Clocks 57-58) comes close to swallowing himself in the mirror of reflection on his participation in the war. His consciousness, in particular, revolves around a question that would have been drilled into him during basic training: “What’s the spirit of the bayonet, soldier?” The answer he would have been taught is “Kill! Kill! Kill!” As military historian Richard Kohn explains, 20th-century bayonet training was “designed to … mitigate or eradicate the reluctance of human beings to kill each other” (Mulrine).

The soldier in “Torsion,” striving to separate his true self from the bayonet’s spirit, reflects ruefully that he

                        had been tapered, honed, & polished in AIT 
& then pointed toward grid coordinates on a ragged map,
His feelings cauterized.

What points him and draws the grid that guides him is the web of war decisions and lies reaching back to the White House. He comes to feel that not just his decision making but his very self has been compromised by his training. This emerges when he describes his role in a battle where he witnesses a likely war crime as defined by the Geneva Conventions[2]:

                                                            After medevac choppers
Flew out the badly wounded & the body bags,
Three men in his squad became two tigers at sunset
& walked through the village. They kicked a pagoda
Till it turned into the crumbly dust of cinnabar,
& then torched thatched roofs.

Although U.S. forces torched some villages as a matter of policy, such villages were supposed to have been cleared of civilians in order to make the settlement part of a “free-fire zone” inhabited only by enemy combatants. But in “Torsion,” the three soldiers seem to be motivated mainly by rage that causes them to forget the wallet cards troops were supposed to be given upon arrival in Vietnam — cards that advised them to show understanding and generosity toward Vietnamese civilians.[3]

The speaker in “Torsion” receives a medal for his role in winning the battle. But for him the medal is a “scarab / in a pharaoh’s brain.” The pharaoh here is not the soldier but probably the American president at the head of the “Lying Machine” (Ellsberg’s term) that keeps the war going. The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

In particular, the spirit of the bayonet so tightly bonds the soldier to an M60 machine gun that “his body became part of the metal. … No, he couldn’t stop / firing as he rode the M60 machine gun to a primal grunt / before he buckled & spewed vomit over the barrel.” The spirit of the bayonet, in other words, functions like an automatic nervous system that makes the firing of the gun a reflex action. (One sign of true political power is its ability to take over — or, here, replace — a nervous system.) The soldier’s natural nervous system makes its statement only after the firing has finished, when he vomits.

What all this means is that the spirit of the bayonet effectively divides the soldier from the self that the military honors: The protagonist recalls that

                     The battalion saluted but he wished to forget his hands,
& the thought of metal made him stand up straight.
He shipped back to the world only to remember blood
on the grass, men dancing on a lit string of bullets,
Women and children wailing among the flame trees,
& he wished he hadn’t been trained so damn well. )

The self that vomits wants to reclaim the entire soldier, but the training that allowed the spirit of the bayonet to travel through him and out the muzzle of the M60 prevents full self-possession. The self that vomited is the self that believes in and wants to live the commandment thou shall not kill, which the soldier invokes at the end of the poem.

Ironically, even those who ran the Lying Machine that took over nervous systems like the soldier’s were somewhat lost to themselves and their own better angels. Lyndon Johnson, the president who did most to expand the war, is said to have done so (deceiving the public all the while) partly out of fear of being attacked and gored from his political right so severely that he would lose the authority he needed to wage his epic and noble war on poverty and inequality in the United States.

The loss of credibility that finally destroyed his presidency and set the stage for actions like Ellsberg’s can be traced to a scarab of lies, misinterpretations, and self-deceptions that crawled through not only his but also his predecessors’, his successors’, and most of their aides’ brains. The pharaoh’s brain in “Torsion,” then, is a collective brain: the brain of the leadership of a whole society. As an incarnation of the scarab crawling through that brain, the medal the soldier in “Torsion” earns, therefore, pins the whole muddled, lie-riddled justification for the war to his chest. The protagonist of “Torsion” never fully finds a way out of this muddle. But both his story and the stories told in related Komunyakaa poems suggest that the only way out is to expand the mind’s bandwidth beyond the limits imposed upon it by incubi like the spirit of the bayonet.

One sees how this might begin to happen in Komunyakaa’s poem “Prisoners” (Pleasure Dome 214-215), where the protagonist has to fight an urge to bow to Vietnamese captives who, he realizes, cannot be broken by any torture: “When they start talking / with ancestors … you know,” he tells himself, “you’ll have to kill them / to get an answer.” In the last two lines, he mocks the war’s most infamous example of self-deceptive might — the assertion, made by an American after the brutal 1968 bombing the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre, that “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”[4]

The actions that earned the medal — actions the soldier did not feel fully in control of — are in a sense the actions of the spirit of the bayonet, which, via the web of decisions and lies descending from the American president, connects the pharaoh’s brain to the soldier’s hands.

The prose poem “A Summer Night in Hanoi” (Komunyakaa, Pleasure Dome 399-400) goes in the other direction, celebrating the life-affirming commonalities between the poet’s African American peasant culture and Vietnamese peasant culture. Even as a columnist and editor for a military newspaper where, by definition, he could not deviate too far from the official U.S. line on Vietnam during his 1969 tour, Komunyakaa tried to educate his readers on the need to respect Vietnamese religions and Vietnamese people, and to act in such a way that members of the Viet Cong might defect to the South Vietnamese side without fear of becoming mistreated prisoners of war. But, obviously, even if he knew confirmable details about them at the time, he was not in a position to publish condemnations of the sometimes grotesque mistreatment or murder of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong prisoners who fell into the hands of South Vietnamese forces or vindictive American troops (mistreatment and murder of the sort he writes about in such poems as “Prisoners,” and “Phantasmagoria”. In “Re-creating the Scene,” the Komunyakaa-like speaker’s report of a gang rape does lead to an, alas, abortive trial).

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” he takes the step of expressing open admiration for Ho Chi Minh. The occasion of the poem is the watching of a film about Ho during a 1990 Hanoi conference that brought together U.S. and Vietnamese writer-veterans. As the poem begins, the version of Komunyakaa who is speaking says, “When the movie house lights click off … I hear Billie’s whispered lament. [The movie] Ho Chi Minh the Man rolls across the skin of five lynched black men.” Here the sufferings of the young Ho Chi Minh and his country under the vicious brutality of French colonialism call to Komunyakaa’s mind the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” as sung by Billie Holiday.

The fact that, in the 1920s, Ho Chi Minh himself wrote an essay condemning the American habit of lynching African Americans confirms another aspect of the parallel Komunyakaa senses between the Black experience and the Vietnamese experience. True, knowledge of African American suffering was used for psychological warfare purposes by Ho’s broadcasters during the war.[5] Nevertheless, watching the movie, Komunyakaa finds a common denominator between himself and Ho, even as he, Komunyakaa, experiences the discomfort of being surrounded by people on whom his country had rained down destruction. As he puts it in “A Summer Night in Hanoi”: “I’m not myself here, craving a mask of silk elusive as [Ho’s] four aliases.” In Hanoi, Komunyakaa “didn’t feel safe” at first, he told the Kenyon Review: He was mindful of “what had been done to the Vietnamese people. … I felt that if it had happened to me, I’d be very angry. So I was very affected by how forgiving the typical Vietnamese happens to be towards Americans” (Baer 75).

Komunyakaa goes on to meditate on the reason for all those aliases—Ho’s activities as a revolutionary plotting against occupying powers had actually led him to create 20 false identities. This was during World War II, when France’s Vichy government had allowed Japan to occupy Vietnam and Ho was organizing guerilla bands against both. He traveled to China in 1942 to seek help in this mission from Chiang Kai-shek and was arrested on suspicion that “anyone carrying so many false documents must be a Japanese agent,” according to Ho biographer William J. Duiker.

In “A Summer Night in Hanoi,” as Komunyakaa tells it, “On his way to Chung-king to talk with Chang K’ai-shek about fighting the Japanese … he’s arrested and jailed for fourteen months. Sitting here in the prison of my skin, I feel his words grow through my fingertips till I see his southern skies and old friends where mountains are clouds.”

The words from Ho that Komunyakaa feels in his fingertips are probably those of poems Ho wrote in Chinese while incarcerated. The phrase “the prison of my skin” splices the conditions of the segregated South in which Komunyakaa passed his childhood to those faced by Ho as someone caught (long before what Americans call the Vietnam War) in the French and then Japanese domination of Vietnam. “Although they have tightly bound my arms and legs,” Ho writes in his poem “On the Road” (Prison Diary 34),

                        All over the mountains I hear the song of birds,
and the forest is filled with the perfume of spring-flowers.
Who can prevent me from freely enjoying these,
which take from the long journey a little of its loneliness?

Here Ho quarries out the spark of agency from his double imprisonment the Chinese jail and in the global coils of colonialism. Writing by choice in Chinese and in a traditional Chinese poetic form, Ho cannily chooses a medium for his agency that is congenial to his jailers and intended to at once make the case for his innocence and show his sophistication and worthiness of being freed. This example of quarrying a spark of pure agency out of the despair of imprisonment no doubt strikes a strong chord with Komunyakaa, who through poetry and prose has quarried a pure spark of agency out of confining stereotypes faced by a Black man born in the segregated South.

Komunyakaa has described his life as “a healing process from two places” (Hedges 157) —Louisiana and Vietnam. Never dehumanizing and healing are intimately connected in his work. A key part of both is the refusal to tell the lies (like the ones that justify colonialism and racial segregation) that short-circuit identification and what philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called communication intended to reach understanding: “I never used the word ‘gook’ or ‘dink’ in Vietnam,” Komunyakaa stressed in 2004. “… There is a certain kind of dehumanization that takes place to create an enemy, to call up the passion to kill this person” (Hedges 157). Furthermore, “I myself came from a peasant society. … So I saw the Vietnamese as familiar peasants” (Baer 73), he said in 1998.

This sense of an overlap in Black and Vietnamese life experience had been expressed by Ho decades earlier, not only in his anti-lynching essay, but also an anti-Ku Klux Klan essay published in the 1920s.[6] In such acts of identification by Ho and Komunyakaa, the bandwidth needed for empathy is not expanded (a tall order, given the current limits of human brainpower[7]) but cleansed for a moment of the lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions, and fallacies[8] that always and forever come to clog it. These lies, misrepresentations, self-deceptions and fallacies are perpetrated sometimes by the spirit of the bayonet, sometimes (as we know so well in the Trump era) by the spirit of chauvinism, sometimes by sheer intellectual exhaustion: They are perpetrated even by the “objective” analyses and calculations that are created to save us from our limitations but that, when relied upon too heavily in either war or peace, deliver us to our limits as surely as the soldier in “Torsion” is delivered over to the “grid coordinates” where the only truth to hold onto is his M60.

Notes:
[1] One regularly encounters such soldiers in Komunyakaa’s works.
[2] More than one article in the Southern Cross, the military newspaper Komunyakaa worked for in Vietnam, reminded American soldiers about their obligations and rights under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, using body count as a measure of success, as the military brass did during the war, tended to undermine that sort of Geneva conditioning.
[3] For more on free fire zones and the cards, see Gutman and Rieff’s Crimes of War (1999).
[4] See Pringle’s 2004 article in the New York Times. For someone of Ochs’ ilk, this statement epitomizes the whole “logic” of America’s intervention in Vietnam. For South Vietnamese, like those who fled to the United States after the U.S. pulled out, however, the real nightmare was the Communist forces America battled.
[5] Writing in 1969 under his birth name (James Brown) and, probably not coincidentally, at a time when he had risen to the editorship of Southern Cross, Komunyakaa warned fellow soldiers that “racial disharmony … can greatly hinder military missions” (Brown 2). The fruits of disharmony are dramatized in Komunyakaa’s poems such as “One-Legged Stool,” where allegations of racism among his fellow soldiers is part of the apparatus built by his Vietnamese captors to break a Black POW. For more on the psychological warfare practiced by the North Vietnamese and their allies, see Collins 137-138 and Salas 70-77.
[6] See Ho’s “Lynching” and “The Ku Klux Klan” in On Revolution.
[7] A good proxy for the “bandwidth” or “power” of a mind is working memory. As Cowan explains, “working memory and its limits [are] a key part of the human condition. …We need working memory in language comprehension, to retain earlier parts of a spoken message until it can be integrated with the later parts … in reasoning, to retain the premises while working with them; and in most other types of cognitive tasks. … Because working memory is limited, there is sometimes important work that fails to get done”(Cowan 1-2).

[8] The most self-deceptive and destructive misapprehension of the war may be the “McNamara Fallacy,” named in mockery of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s devotion to statistical analyses of the situation in Indochina: One wag summarized the fallacy as “Measure what can easily be measured” and presume that what “cannot easily be measured does not exist.” In his later years, McNamara confessed that he and others had been infected by delusions of omniscience.

 

Works Cited

Baer, William. “Still Negotiating with the Images: An Interview with Yusef Komunyakaa.” Hanshaw, pp. 70-83.

Brown, James. “The Army Attitude and Racial Discrimination.” Southern Cross, vol. 2, no. 32, 7 November 1969, p. 2.

Collins, Michael. “Staying Human.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review, vol. 18, no. 2/vol. 19, no. 1, 1993, pp. 126-150.

Cowan, Nelson. Working Memory Capacity: Essays in Cognitive Psychology. Psychology Press, 2005.

Duiker, William J. Ho Chi Minh: A Life. Hachette Books, 2001.

Ellsberg, Daniel. Secrets: A Memoir of the Pentagon Papers. Penguin, 2002.

Gutman, Roy, and David Rieff. Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Hedges, Chris. “A Poet of Suffering, Endurance and Healing.” Hanshaw, pp. 156-158.

Ho Chi Minh. The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh, translated by Aileen Parker. Bantam Books, 1971.

—. On Revolution, edited by Bernard B. Fall, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1967.

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Pleasure Dome, Wesleyan UP, 2001.

—. The Emperor of Water Clocks. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Mulrine, Anna. “One Less Skill for Soldiers to Master at Boot Camp: Bayonet Training.” The Christian Science Monitor, 28 September 2010.

Pringle, James. “Meanwhile: The Quiet Town Where the Vietnam War Began.” New York   Times, 23 March 2004.

Salas, Angela. Flashback Through the Heart: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Company, 2004.

Troy, Gil. “The Singing Journalist Who Left Too Soon.” Daily Beast, 3 April 2016.


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by Lillian Yvonne Bertram, PhD

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The landscape of contemporary American poetry is experiencing a boom in work written by people of color, fueled no doubt by landmark initiatives such as Furious Flower, Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA, Letras Latinas, and others. Whether it’s Claudia Rankine’s 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Citizen, new work by Danez Smith, Morgan Parker, Douglas Kearney, Duriel Harris, or Ruth Ellen Kocher, poetry by Black poets has been appearing at incredible rates, a clear response to the need for more voices and visions of Black life to counter the national resurgence of anti-black racism. We can now add to these Patricia Smith’s tenth (yes, tenth) book, Incendiary Art.

The subjects of the book are multiple and entwined: Emmett Till, the “incendiary art” of race riots in Chicago, the Birmingham Church Bombing, the 1921 Tulsa race riots, and contemporary police brutality all take shape in Smith’s masterful lyrics and formal precision. Alongside these public-facing accounts of Black lives taken without any prosecution of the murderers, Smith reflects on her own father’s murder in the triple-sestina Elegy. As much as there is palpable anger in laying plain the true viciousness with which Black lives have been taken in alliterative lines like these from “Incendiary Art: Birmingham, 1963”—

Baby girls boom. Baby girls blow
and burn, skin balloons, booms.
baby girls burn, boom.

—these are also poems of witness, mourning, and beauty. One of Smith’s signature abilities as a poet is how she uses what might seem like an unlikely formal poetics alongside her chosen subject matter. Divided into four sections (“Incendiary,” “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters,” “Accidental,” and “Shooting into the Mirror”), the attentive reader will be rewarded with formal arrangements both dizzying and nuanced. Some are more recognizable rhyme schemes, such as the aba/bcb/cdc/ded of the first poem titled “Incendiary Art.” The “Incendiary Art” poems (of which there are eight), all treat either the inciting incidents (often fiery) of race riots or the fiery riots themselves.

Even when no clear received form is at work, one cannot help but feel like there is some underlying governing pattern to the lines, be it alliteration, assonance, or pure musicality as in the poem “Incendiary Art: MOVE, Philadelphia, 1985” a two-stanza poem of 12-line stanzas. Take the twelfth line of the first stanza and the first line of the second:

 while manned squad cars spun in their own sweat.
 Spying on smothered drums and death throes, 6pm

Despite their physical separation on the page, the ess sounds and internal rhymes (spun/drum, sweat/death) smoothly link the two stanzas, bridging the gap with a musicality reminiscent of the sonnet crown method. (In her previous book, Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah, Smith ends with the sonnet crown “Motown Crown.”)

“Incendiary Art: MOVE, Philadelphia, 1985” is immediately followed by an “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” sonnet which is then followed by the near-complete sestina “The Then Where.” As defined by the Academy of American Poets, a sestina “follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi.” Centered on the Sandy Hook school shooting, the poem poses and reflects on the question, “If it is not supposed to happen there, then where is the where where it is supposed to happen?” Smith’s use of the sestina form holds true up until the envoi, which is present only in its absence. The poem’s final words are “And happens,” keeping the poem open to more shootings, more happenings. There is no send-off to that which has yet to end. The repeated end words (happens / way / elsewhere / through / preys (prays) praise / way(away)weigh / wind (winding)) reinforce the idea that when it comes to mass shootings, it has all been heard before, especially “it’s not supposed to happen here.” Mass shootings and the predictable responses to them are part of the same infinitely recursive cycle.

One of Smith’s signature abilities as a poet is how she uses what might seem like an unlikely formal poetics alongside her chosen subject matter.

The sestina form reappears in the book in the poem “Elegy,” only in this poem Smith has tripled the possibilities. The elegy is an elegy to her murdered father, another Black life lost and one that plunges the reader into Smith’s personal history, picking up a thread laid down in Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah. Instead of six six-lined stanzas and a three-line envoi, her elegy features eighteen eighteen-lined stanzas and a nine-line envoi. A reader can perhaps anticipate and expect a sestina, especially if they are familiar with Smith’s poetry. Much less expected, or even conceived of, is a tripled[1] sestina that traces the origins and dissolution of the parents’ relationship. The daughter asks, “How did you two stutter into love? I just can’t see any way / one of you saw a chance in the other, nothing that justifies …”. She chronicles how with her birth, her mother became the outsider in her and her father’s relationship:

                                                  My lock on you broke/
every rule—fast co-conspirators, we were already hatching a way
out of where my birthday found us. My mother was one down,
none to go while you and I began a sloppy, blatant love, marked
by my wet gaze and your sweet inability to put me down, marked
by your whisper …

Smith’s use of the tripled sestina allows the poem to perform the length of this narrative (the length is necessary to achieve completeness) and the yearning that drives it. Emphasis and bonds are inherent in the sestina form, and the poem contains a deep desire to reconnect with and tell the story of her father. By the end of Elegy the bond between daughter and father materializes when her father’s “funky apparition” appears to her “at daybreak when you make your mark / on my waking dream.” If you have read Smith’s Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (if not, I highly recommend it), you will better understand the significance of the poem’s last lines as her father gifts her the name he wanted to give her when she was in the womb:

                                                You’re a chalk outline, your eyes
reaching. I quick-slap your hand, unblock the view of what you hold.
your dead eyes hooded, you lay down the gift. It’s Jimi, my real name.

Lastly, of particular interest to me are a suite of five poems titled “Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure” and how the intertextuality of allusion and received form are framing this difficult content.

For those who may not know, Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) was a series of game-books (inspired by Role Playing Games, or RPGs) wherein the reader “chose” the narrative directions based on possibilities presented on individual pages of the book. The reader “chooses” the direction by turning to the specified page and continuing from there. Each choice theoretically eliminates all others, although the book’s creators acknowledge that “a particular set of choices will throw the reader into a loop where they repeatedly reach the same page” (CYOA). All outcomes are predetermined and these sonnets use that to their advantage by already being on the page that the poem directs the reader to turn to. In tandem, despite the poems’ visions of alternate realities for Emmett Till, the narrative possibilities are always foreclosed upon. The interactivity suggested by the poems relies on an agreement between poem and reader—both know the outcome and that any choice is illusory. As the book’s creators note, there are “Endings that result in the death of ‘you,’ your companions, or both. Many times these sorts of negative endings include transformation of the ‘you’ into a non-human form and becoming permanently stuck in the transformed state” (CYOA). Not only are Emmett’s narrative possibilities limited, the visual imagery of his open casket transforms and affixes Emmett in a state of permanent death, as obvious as that sounds. The open casket is permanently seared into the national consciousness. In the second sonnet, the reader is instructed to “Turn to page 27 if Emmett’s casket is closed instead.” Yet it is open and the casket is always open, even in the poem where it is ostensibly closed. Take these opening lines:

            We’re curious, but his imploded eye
the bullet’s only door, would be the thing
we wouldn’t want to see.

This bit of metanarrative relies on the reader’s condition of already-having-seen. There is no closing the casket, not even for argument’s sake.

What if Rodney King, Trayvon, and Michael Brown had made it back home—maybe late, with a story to tell, but at least alive? What if Black people could live without being perched on the precipice of death? What if What if?

A reader might wonder at such reliance on the allusion to this series of books. After all, Choose Your Own Adventure books were supposed to be fun, interactive role-playing game-books to stimulate the avid and reluctant reader alike. Is it not somewhat crass to cast Emmett’s life and the circumstances of his death as a game where anyone other than Emmett has power over his narrative, can “Turn to page 14 if Emmet travels to Nebraska instead of Mississippi,” when we all know that he does not, cannot? The dissonance continues: each of the five poems is a sonnet situated loosely between the Petrarchan and Shakespearean rhyme schemes (abab/cdcd/efef/gg) and opting for a volta-like rhyming couplet at the end instead of octave or sestet. Like the allusion to the role-playing game, the sonnet form also suggests a type of predestination for the narrative contained therein. If the casket is closed, the mourners (more mourning, less spectating) are (predictably) left

            imagining
the knotted tie, the scissored naps, those cheeks
in rakish bloom, perhaps a scrape or two
beneath his laundered shirt.

The rhymes are full, “cheeks” with “shrieks” and the funereal rose “thorns” demands the appropriate action and sound:

            her tiny hand
starts crushing roses—one by one by one
            she wrecks the casket’s spray. It’s how she mourns—
a mother still, despite the roar of thorns.

The sonnet, typically associated with love, serves that purpose here. It also provides a sense of composure to an otherwise horrifying scene: “More than 50,000 people filed past during his funeral. Many screamed and fainted.” The metanarrative reinforces the having-seen, the witnessing. That is what Mamie Till wanted, and the poem assumes readers have already inhabited the role of witness—and if not, they will now.

Yet this suite is not without irony and somber questions. Just what was the adventure, if any? What were Emmett’s available narrative choices and at what point did someone else take those choices from him and replace them with their own? What if Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown had made it back home—maybe late, with a story to tell, but at least alive? What if Black people could live without being perched on the precipice of death? What if What if? The poems in this masterful book show us the stakes and demand that we see them. The fires of protest and resistance were lit long ago, and in Smith’s necessary and uncompromising poetry, poetry where #blacklivesmatter, these fires are spreading and gaining strength. The final lines of Incendiary Art promise that more is coming: “And there are unstruck matches / everywhere.”

[1] (Mathematically, the possibilities for treating eighteen different end words eighteen different ways is 6.415. Luckily, the sestina form comes with a predetermined combination. In the six-line stanza version, it goes like this: ABCDEF/FAEBDC/CFDABE/ECBFAD/DEACFB/BDFECA/envoi ECA or ACE. Smith’s amplified version begins like this: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQR/RAQBPCODNEMFLGKHJI and continues in kind.)


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


Dr. Lillian Bertram is the author of tlillian_bertram_author photo2_dennisonbertramhree books of poetry: Personal Science (Tupelo Press), a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press), and But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise, chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award and published by Red Hen Press. She is also the author of Grand Dessein, an artist book commissioned by Container Press. She has a PhD and MFA in creative writing and teaches in the MFA program at UMass Boston(Photo Credit: Dennison Bertram)

by Tara Betts, PhD

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Before I put any words to paper to talk about Danez Smith’s writing, I think about a photo snapped of this poet laughing in the snow, a slightly cupped hand reaching to cover the wattage of a smile, and it is sweet. Almost like watching your younger brother trying to look hard, then bursting into laughter. Smith is young, alive, and looks so happy that it makes me smile, and I say this is beautiful because I have never believed “beautiful” is an adjective reserved for women, but this photo does not portray a “pretty boy.” Smith writes love poems to deconstruct Black death, whether it arrives from a police officer’s bullet or courses through bloodstreams with the disease that has no cure. So, when I think of that image of a young Black person, an openly gay young Black person, smiling in the snow, it feels more than beautiful—it feels goddamn victorious.

As I was rereading all of the poems in Smith’s [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014) and Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015), I thought about director Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. What startled me most in this movie was the gaps—how Baldwin’s queerness (and Lorraine Hansberry’s quiet lesbian identity) was skated over like a veneer of visible ice that no one was really paying attention to, even though the ice is clearly there as part of the skating experience. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, because there were not only pages missing from this unfinished Baldwin script, which rings prophetic and contemporary at times, but this other absence makes the gaps in the story even wider.

Why would a photo of the poet and the requisite cameo of James Baldwin be so important to discussing the work of Danez Smith? With declarative, bold, language and adept turns of imagery, Smith’s poems begin filling in the gaps of omission established in works like Peck’s film. I would venture further to say that Smith is addressing the void left by poets like Melvin Dixon, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, and Assotto Saint. In poetry from the past couple of decades, there was no possibility for a longer narrative, and after the deaths of so many artists, how does one find language of survival? However, the new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative. Smith is among contemporaries like Jericho Brown, Phillip B. Williams, Saeed Jones, and Rickey Laurentiis; they are young, healthy, prolific, consistently writing, and teaching other poets. In this perpetuation of the word, readers have a chance to capture an extended moment beyond one book, or the phrase “posthumous publication.” Beyond the exploration of sexuality, these poets are dealing with dilemmas central to how Blackness is defined in America—police brutality, masculinity (toxic and otherwise), popular culture—and reaffirming those who are often dehumanized.

The new wave of gay poets has time and opportunity to shape a longer narrative.

So, if you cannot deal with how Smith teeters on the precipice between death and celebration for another breath, then I don’t know why you even came to a poetry book at all. This teetering is the preamble to Smith’s second full-length collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017). The title itself states another imperative that some might mistake as a syntactic move typically employed in slam poems, but Smith varies the technique enough to create an imagined reality that steps away from the expectations of editors who would like the click bait of “another police brutality poem.”

The opening poem “summer, somewhere” and the poems that follow simultaneously employ grace and bluntness to disinvite people who are intrigued by trauma. “summer, somewhere” tells how “boys brown/as rye” will be addressed: “please, don’t call / us dead, call us alive someplace better. / we say our own names we pray. / we go out for sweets & come back.” In a lived reality, we know Trayvon Martin never came back after sweet tea and Skittles, but in this alternate world, the boys are revived and choose new names. The collection returns to avoiding death consistently; Smith alludes to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” with phrases like “dear empty Chucks,” which evoke a pair of sneakers thrown over a power line, or family members looking at shoes onscreen long after the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. When Spike Lee revealed this latter scene in the 1997 documentary 4 Little Girls, viewers mourn what is lost, but Don’t Call Us Dead surpasses loss and moves toward resurrection and an alternative universe. Readers are instead given lines like “do you know what it’s like to live … paradise is a world where everything / is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.”

Smith builds on re-envisioning life through a series of epistolary poems like “Sweet Cain” and “my stolen lover” and deliberates on the latent fatality of contracting HIV that has become a treatable illness without a cure. HIV “is not a death sentence,” Smith reiterates, but it looms in the poet’s consciousness within the lines of the latter half of Don’t Call Us Dead. Much like the poet’s understanding of what it means to live as a Black person in America, Smith’s reconciliation of living with HIV is a resistant acceptance:

listen
i’ve accepted what i was given

be it my name or be it my ender’s verdict.
when i was born, i was born a bull’s-eye.

i spent my life arguing how i mattered
until it didn’t matter.

who knew my haven
would be my coffin?

dead is the safest i’ve ever been.
i’ve never been so alive.

That last line, “i’ve never been so alive,” claims another sort of living for which there is no name. Smith articulates what poets like Hemphill and Dixon were not able to live long enough to witness, which is more than the public acknowledgment of LGBT rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, or pharmaceutical developments like Pre-exposure prophylaxis (commonly known as PrEP), but the rise of hip hop and varied multiplicities of masculinity as well. Smith describes men who could easily be on a basketball court together, dressed like any other men, but he evokes their sensuality, tenderness, and potential moments for attraction, and in this way reimagines life before death, too.

The other sad inevitability that Smith articulates, even as the poems reanimate and rename living, is how the world continues to act as if lives like Smith’s are expendable:

o the boys. they still come
in droves. the old world

keeps choking them. our new one
can’t stop spitting them out.

What happens in a world where boys are constantly expelled? What happens when such boys can meet any number of demises? Smith clearly identifies at least one extended sense of loss in lines like this:

i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news.
i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner
until light outweighs us, & we become it

In those three lines, Smith rejects stereotyping, relays a common symptom of HIV, poetically describes death, and reimagines the mystical light that Black men embody, both acknowledging the loss and reclaiming it.

Beyond loss, there is still sensuality and sex. The poems “last summer of innocence” and “a note on Vaseline” entangle the homoerotic with the vestiges of childhood innocence as a sort of transition into poems that explore the terrain of Black gay relationships with poems like “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths,” “at the down low house party,” and “O nigga O.” These direct titles speak to how detached yet immediate desire and objectification can be, especially as they share a section with the mythmaking of sex in “seroconversion” and the haiku-like “fear of needles.” The poem “recklessly” references PrEP, and playfully alludes to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love,” Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Bill Clinton’s failed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, and Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” Every one of these references leads back to sensuality and sex, acts of life and death. Yet, like a specter, the sentence “it’s not a death sentence anymore” keeps sifting its way through the poems.

That poignant convergence of mortality, tender beauty, and objectification, even in death, is challenged again and again in this collection. In “elegy with pixels & cum,” which is dedicated to the late gay porn star Javier “Chocolate Kid” Bravo, each line ends with “kid” as its epistrophe—an affectionate term not just for a younger person, but someone a person knows on their block, a person that one might call a friend. As “elegy …” progresses, Smith shows how people dehumanized Javier Bravo (“men gather in front of screens to jerk & mourn”) even though he was “someone’s, kid.” When this section of the book concludes with the three-page poem “litany with blood all over,” Smith employs anaphora for each idea with the phrase “test results say” until the poem begins talking about blood and becomes a pool of typography where the phrases “my blood” and “his blood” literally merge.

Smith does not flinch at blood or the loss of it, instead embraces the complication of his condition, even as this book progresses toward its end with lines like this from “it began right here”:

ghosts have always been real
& i apprentice them now. they say it’s not a death-sentence

like it used to be. but it’s still life. i will die in this bloodcell.
i’m learning to become all the space i need. i laughed today.”

Although there is a clear progression from the tenderness in [insert] boy and the imaginative alternatives in Black Movie, the spare lines and visual play in Don’t Call Us Dead are definite markers of a maturing voice that connects its experiences and those of its precursors aesthetically and in terms of identity as a gay man and Black poet. How else could Smith close a book like Don’t Call Us Dead with “crown” as a crown of sonnets that reclaims the lives that Black boys might aspire to if they live? Even the cover of this book extends this idea of reaching toward space, more room to live. A Black man is reaching for another levitating Black man raised, possibly to heaven, by a simple balloon. They are both naked, beautiful, and vulnerable, which is far too often what men are never allowed to be, and though in this crippling they experience another kind of slow death, Smith clearly tells us what no one is allowed to call the “us” he cherishes in these poems. Moreover, the fact that Smith is present, vital and vigorously suggesting that Black lives must be both chronicled and reimagined fully, is itself, a victory.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompts


 

Betts_in_blue-200pxDr. Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016) and Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009). She is also one of the co-editors of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century (2Leaf Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Essence, Nylon, and numerous anthologies. Betts holds a PhD in English from Binghamton University and a MFA in Creative Writing from New England College. She teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago and serves as part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University.

by Lauri Ramey, PhD

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Vol. 1, Iss. 1 | Gregory Pardlo | Summer 2017

Some of the most interesting and exciting verbal and cognitive effects in the poetry of 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo are generated by creative blends, where two or more disparate input spaces are brought into startling conjunction to reveal new meanings not found in either of the domains being compared. Important revelations about Pardlo’s poetry and poetics—as well as African diasporic representations of space, time, and experience—may be discerned from these innovative metaphorical juxtapositions. Pardlo’s poetry uses an exceptional array of forms and styles for varied purposes, including linear and sentimental personal narratives, extended philosophical meditations, ekphrastic poems and still lives, evocations of music, and literary portraits and tributes. “What is the self?” is one of the central questions of Pardlo’s poetics. He frequently uses conceptual integration, which is performed by creative blends, to both raise and try to answer that question. We find plentiful examples of polysemy, double-scope blending, counterfactuals, fictive motion, and compression, among other operations, which enable us to move from intimate to global realms, embodiment to abstraction, and within and outside of time and space.

Here I am going to focus on his talent for producing creative blends that use polysemy—playing with words that have multiple, and often quite different, meanings—as one of Pardlo’s most effective techniques to generate unstable planes of identity, location, and chronology. Creative blends are plentiful in Pardlo’s two collections, where his assymetrical and disjunctive metaphors often use polysemy—itself a type of lexical trickster figure—which can require significant interpretive work to derive sense. An example of one of his creative blends drawing on polysemy is “conjuring away his essence like some bootleg golem,” from the poem “Landscape with Intervention,” the opening poem of his first collection, Totem (2007). We start with an African survival of ghostly spirits in the phrase “conjuring away his essence,” which evokes the conjure man or witch doctor from macumba, Santeria, or voudun, who practices medicine using mystical spiritual practices. The space of this African diasporic belief system is brought into conjunction with the time and place of Prohibition in early 20th century American culture when alcohol was made illegal and the term “bootleg” was popularized. The word “bootleg” plays on the polysemous character of the word “spirits” in its meaning as banned alcoholic beverages. A third space is brought into the creative blend through the incorporation of ancient Jewish mysticism. “Golem” is a mystical anthropomorphic figure, first named in the biblical Psalms, who is mythically created from an inanimate substance. So, to selectively cross-map the relevant features of the spaces, times, and inputs of the domains brought into conjunction, we can understand the blended space to refer to human fears of unsanctioned, otherworldly, forbidden, and potent forces operating in the interstices between embodied anthropomorphism and inanimate substances—the thin line between clay and flesh—and the terror of being deprived of the human spirit through unholy means.

In Pardlo’s verse, polysemy enables us to move seamlessly between what we perceive as literal and figurative realms, which confirms the claims of Mark Turner that there are not different cognitive processes involved in accessing these realms, though we may—through what he calls folk processes—perceive them as fundamentally different. According to Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier, polysemy is “an essential manifestation of the flexibility, adaptability, and richness in meaning potential that lie at the very heart of what a language is and what it is for.” Turner and Fauconnier claim that “most polysemy is invisible,” which makes its recognition a subtle and powerful tool to understand the cognitive complexity of Pardlo’s poetry.

Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context.

By foregrounding this level of creativity which is omnipresent in language use, Pardlo ignites processes that allow us to alternately connect and disconnect time and space, stasis and movement, meaning and mystery, individualism and universalism, and other apparent dichotomies that are constantly melded and separated in the processes of cognition. Through this technique, readers are constantly kept off balance, stimulated, and challenged to produce a series of new meanings and insights which accrue special weight in an African diasporic context. The opening poems of both of his collections offer vivid examples of Pardlo’s use of polysemy to initiate and destabilize the decoding process. For two extended examples of how this process takes place, we can turn to the word “role” in “Landscape with Intervention” (Totem) and the word “born” in “Written by Himself” (Digest, 2015).

“Role” is a spectacularly polysemous word with especially important associations in the fields of sociology and theater. In sociological terms, it means one’s purpose or function—the expected set of behaviors for a person’s identity or status, the behavioral patterns that locate an individual in society, one’s set of customary duties, and relational and familial positions. In theatrical terms, it denotes the distinction between an actor and the part or character being played. These definitions gain additional layers of meaning in a racialized context, where “to perform blackness” has both sociological and theatrical implications and associations. These understandings include the racial masking that accompanies double consciousness, and the wearing or adopting of a mask to either foreground or hide blackness.

Consider this excerpt from “Landscape with Intervention” in Pardlo’s strategic employment of multiple senses of the word “role” [my emphasis in the bolded phrases]:

Accordingly, among actors, fathers
encouraged the mingling of identity and act by raising
their sons in dedication

to a single role—the way craftsmen took their trade to be
their name: carpenter, tailor, the ubiquitous
smith—and stack eternal odds in their favor: that the Calvinist
god’s estimation of the man match the quality of that man’s
performance in the role he’d been given. Such piety doubling
as social currency, suggesting an audience of more than
just One. The American

actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, developed a role in the late
1820’s which he dedicated his life to performing. He covered
his white face in burnt cork and dubbed himself “Jim Crow”.
His influence was epidemic.

The first use of “role” in this excerpt—“dedication to a single role”—is sociological and abstract. It refers to an Aristotelian melding of action and identity by positing the capability to choose and perform a specific role in life to which one is dedicated. This process is genealogical and cyclical, as each generation of fathers encourages the mingling of self and performance (identity and act) by “raising their sons in dedication” to a single role. In a Calvinist sense, the successful performance of this single role defines the quality of a man.

The second use of “role”—“man’s performance in the role he’d been given”—is both sociological and theatrical. It suggests the passive receipt of an assigned task or identity, and the virtue of fulfilling that role well, in sociological and/or theatrical terms. In an African American context, where this condition could readily define the expectations for a slave, the double-voicing of this usage of “role” has ominous undertones, leading to the third appearance of “role” in this excerpt.

The third use of “role”—“developed a role”—refers to a particular theatrical part, which in this case, encourages practices of institutional racism by promulgating the minstrelsy, burlesque of black physical appearance, racist stereotyping, and perpetuation of discrimination that were performed in the context of “Jim Crow.” In the blended space, we therefore must cross-map racial, sociological, and theatrical roles to derive meaning. Filial obedience and respect are displayed by choosing a role in life to fulfill successfully. This use of “role” is juxtaposed with the historical conditions of racial discrimination that thrust generations of African Americans into performing the role of the slave, which denied them right to choose their own role in life.

We find a similar process in the opening poem of Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize winning second collection, Digest, which offers us at least fourteen different uses and senses of the phrase “I was born,” and polysemous meanings of the word “born,” in this single-stanza poem whose title alludes to the common subtitle for slave narratives, “Written by Himself.”

As a few examples of Pardlo’s powerful manipulation of the multiple senses of the word “born” and phrase “I was born,” the poem opens with “I was born in minutes” (l. 1), which suggests the physical act of the speaker’s own birth. In “I was born to rainwater and lye,” “born” refers to the life that awaited the speaker, where even the bathing practices were rough. “I was born across the river” (l. 3) describes the geographical location of the speaker’s place of birth. “I was born a fraction and a cipher and a ledger entry” [l. 12] describes the speaker’s birth as a slave in antebellum America by referring to the accounting documentation of slaves by their “owners.” The examples proliferate from line to line. As the poem develops, we make sense of the polysemy by recognizing that the speaker was born to a family legacy, a history of African American struggle, a place in American history, and an identity as a self-defining and self-articulating individual through the mechanism of language.

Through his use of polysemy, what is Pardlo blending? He employs the creativity that is integral to language to produce poems that examine multiple possibilities, foreclose few, and open what is most painfully revealed. In the context of African diasporic and African American experience, geography, identity, and history, Pardlo’s use of the words “role” and “born” provide resonant correspondence by evoking the phrases “the role one was born for” and “born for a role.” Each phrase carries with it a burden and an opportunity; we are graced by the poetry of Gregory Pardlo to be faced with the terror and beauty of both.


Notes and Works Cited

Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. “Polysemy and Conceptual Blending.” In Polysemy: Flexible Patterns of Meaning in Mind and Language, ed. Brigitte Nerlich, Vimala Herman, Zazie Todd, and David Clarke. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2003, 79-94: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/turner-polysemy.pdf, accessed June 2, 2017.

Pardlo, Gregory. Digest. New York: Four Way Books, 2015.

—————. Totem. Philadelphia: The American Poetry Review, 2007.

For a helpful summary of the key processes and concepts of blending, see the entry by Gilles Fauconnier for The Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, accessed on May 31, 2017:  http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~faucon/BEIJING/blending.pdf


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompts


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Dr. Lauri Ramey is the Xiaoxiang Scholar Program Distinguished Professor at Hunan Normal University in China, and founding director of the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics at California State University, Los Angeles. Her books include What I Say (University of Alabama Press, 2015), The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1962–1975 (Routledge, 2012), Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), and Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone (2006).